A Matter Of Survival

Having a machinist appear on a reality TV show is good for the profession. 


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A horrific, unexpected disaster leaves you trapped with a small band of fellow survivors in an abandoned downtown warehouse. Power, water and communication lines to the old building are cut off. It’s up to you, as a machinist, and nine other strangers to figure out how to survive and create some sort of sustainable community. The group’s only material resources are whatever meager supplies and tools happen to be lying around. Besides you, the group includes men and women with diverse backgrounds, such as a nurse, several engineers and scientists, a doctor, a building contractor and a handyman. Will your know-how as a machinist help the group survive?

These circumstances are the premise behind "The Colony," a reality TV show that originally aired in the summer of 2009 on The Discovery Channel (http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/colony/colony.html). As a kind of controlled experiment simulating the likely aftermath of a world-threatening disaster, "The Colony" tested the physical, intellectual and psychological abilities of the 10 volunteers who took part.

The machinist on the series is John Valencia, an electronics technician who switched careers to become a machinist. Currently employed at Absolute Technologies Inc. in Yorba Linda, California, John joined the lineup of TV colonists for the 10 weeks of taping late in 2008. I talked to John about his experiences to find out what he learned and to get his insider’s account of the experiment.

John told me that he was eager to join because he hoped it would put a positive spotlight on the practical skills that come with being a machinist. This, he hoped, would have two results: a greater awareness of the trade’s importance to society and an influence on young people who might be attracted to careers in machining. Although his efforts in some of critical projects undertaken by the group didn’t get the prominent show coverage given to other members (usually the ones who tended to "act up" in front of the camera), John was pleased that an underlying message came through—that making things, creating functional components, was an essential link between clever ideas and life-sustaining results.

John explained that, in the normal world, a machinist relies on good tools and materials. On the show, he had to make do with a few cutting tools and an old drill press that functioned as a makeshift milling machine and vertical lathe. He was able to turn down some of the repaired valve components that got the group’s "get-away" truck running, for example. Another one of the "builds" he led was that of an oven the group could use to cook its meals. Although being tired and hungry all the time was one of the worst parts of the experience, John said that sharing these hardships created a bond between the cast members. That was one of the best parts.

I asked if being part of "The Colony" changed John’s life. It really didn’t, he assured me. "It did reinforce a sense of self that comes from applying know-how that no one else in the group could have provided," he said. Too bad more of the role played by a machinist didn’t come out in the show. Even so, John’s participation is something we can be proud of.